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Why Babies Love Babies

I'm feeding my 8-month-old baby daughter, Page. Spoonful after little, goopy, greenish spoonful of strained spinach goes readily into her waiting mouth. Suddenly she begins grabbing for the baby-food jar, babbling insistently. "Na-na-na-NA!" Is she ravenous? Am I dipping the spoonfuls too slowly? Not at all: She is angling for a better view of the Gerber baby's face.

Every morning she waves to her big sister's collection of doe-eyed Madame Alexander cherubs in the room that they share. She kidnaps any baby dolls left on the floor. And she'll sit longer with a board book if it features lots of baby faces.

Why do babies love babies? Narcissism? The thrill of a kindred spirit? Or are they merely being sociable? No one knows what babies are thinking, of course. But the probable reasons behind baby-love are as lofty as survival of the species and as immediate as the stimulation of brain cell growth, says Derek Price, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Wheaton College, in Norton, Massachusetts, and an expert on child development. By understanding and tapping into your baby's attraction to other babies, you will not only help her learn to socialize, but you'll be making her happy, too.

An infant's fascination with babies starts as a fascination with faces. But the first few weeks out of the delivery room, anything more than a foot away from a newborn is almost a complete blur, and even closer objects  -- namely, Mom and Dad  -- are not usually distinct. "Newborns show very little interest in faces, preferring instead to find patterns of high contrast between light and dark areas and fixate on those," Price says. "This can be a bit of a disappointment to parents who have been led to believe in the romanticized notion that their baby will gaze into their eyes and express a deep bond with them."

A little patience will soon be rewarded. After a few weeks of scant sleep and encouragement, most parents are thrilled to see a first unmistakable smile of recognition. More substantial than the earlier reflex smiles, this milestone is called "the social smile." Well before this point, your newborn could recognize your voice and scent, according to pediatrician George Askew, M.D., an early childhood health and development consultant in Washington, D.C. Now she's mastered the ability to recognize and actively respond to your face.

The social smile is not limited to parents or even to familiar faces. Faces of all kinds delight a 2-month-old. "There's lots of interaction with strangers, and they're still smiling at the doctor at this age," Price notes. By 3 to 4 months of age, interest centers on the eyes. When a face begins talking, the baby focuses not on the speaker's mouth, but on her peepers. Vision is improving, too. You can now be seen from several feet away.

What you can do to encourage socialization now:

 

  • Talk to your baby often to engage her interest and get her used to the give-and-take pattern of conversations.

     

  • From about 6 months, play games like peekaboo or look in a mirror together.

     

  • Take care not to go overboard. A baby doesn't need constant stimulation  -- if yours starts to fuss or turn away during play, she's probably signaling that she's had enough. Intersperse chatter with quiet time.

    Baby Love

    Between 7 and 9 months, a baby's innate ability to discern features improves. Now she prefers familiar ones and rejects most of the unknown, a condition known as stranger anxiety. Curiously, though, this wariness doesn't extend to strange babies  -- most tots thrill to every baby face they see. "When a diaper commercial comes on TV, Jonathan stops playing and just stares at the set," says Karol Patyk, who lives in Tega Cay, South Carolina, of her 18-month-old son. "He's fascinated with the babies."

    One theory about this phenomenon is that humans have an innate sense of what we find attractive, says Gary Levy, Ph.D., a research professor in family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. It's average features  -- not too big, not too small, not too irregular  -- that seem to be the standard. "Most babies' faces have features with few extremes as compared to adult faces," he explains. This may explain why babies find one another so appealing yet shy away from unfamiliar adults.

    Another theory: Humans, from our earliest days, are programmed to find babies adorable so that they will want to assume care for them, improving a helpless child's odds for survival, explains Dr. Askew. We're all sucked in by what researchers call the distinctive characteristics of "babyness": round eyes, chubby cheeks, a button nose, a large head in proportion to body size, and rounded limbs. "All young animals with this disproportionate ratio of large head to smaller body  -- puppies and bear cubs, as well as humans  -- are found to be irresistibly attractive," he notes.

    Just ask 18-month-old Louisa Anderson, who has been drawn to the babies she sees at her church nursery in Cincinnati since she started attending before she was a year old. "Whether it's a newborn or one her own size, I cannot keep her away from them," says her mom, Patricia. "She gets so excited and wants to touch them." For most infants, another baby of similar size down at eye level and within easy reach is like a big toy. "You'll see babies put fingers in one another's eyes or pull on their ears," Price says. They're not gentle with each other because they don't yet identify themselves (or others) as delicate, but don't worry, they'll learn soon enough.

    Not all infants express baby-love with equal enthusiasm, though. "Some babies are hesitant to initiate social interaction, even with other babies, preferring to watch, while others take all the interaction you can give them," Price says. That's likely because of their inborn temperaments. "Some psychologists argue that the most basic temperamental difference in humans is sociability," Price adds. "That's fine; it takes all kinds."

    What you can do to encourage socialization now:

     

  • Respect your baby's separation and stranger anxiety, but don't be afraid to leave her with a sitter. The tears she sheds when you part won't last long, particularly if she's with a familiar caregiver.

     

  • It doesn't pay to force a reserved child to be more outgoing; a person's inborn level of sociability stays surprisingly constant throughout life. She'll still make friends  -- just at her own pace.

     

  • If you bring two tots together, keep a close eye on them. If hair-pulling and eyeball-poking ensue, discipline with distraction or separation rather than reprimands. The babies are being curious, not deliberately mean.

    Playing Mommy

    In the middle of the second year of life, your baby's brain makes amazing new strides. Her memory improves, she can use objects to represent other things, and she begins to observe and imitate others in her life. This is the start of a child's full flowering of enjoyment in baby dolls (as well as teddies, stuffed Barneys, and other toys with human- or animal-like features). They're favorites, in short, because they can relate.

    "The child is interested in everything having to do with babies. She also loves the way you relate to her  -- with cuddling or feeding, for example  -- so she naturally begins to pretend play with babies," Price explains. Your fledgling toddler does what you do: She hugs a baby doll, pretends to put it to sleep, or feeds it with a bottle or even her own cup of milk.

    By the time they reach their toddler years, children are slightly less inclined to explore one another. When they play together, it tends to be "parallel play"  -- side by side, each in her own reverie, not really interacting much. Surprisingly, babies and toddlers don't recognize that other babies and toddlers are "one of them." Rather, they simply find one another interesting creatures, according to Price. It's as if they don't realize that they are babies themselves, even though they may correctly say baby to identify others. In fact, it won't be until after age 2 that most babies can identify themselves in a mirror or a photograph, after they recognize images of parents, siblings, and other loved ones. "It's quite an achievement to recognize oneself," Price says.

    What you can do to encourage socialization now:

     

  • Provide human-like dolls and props—such as a doll bed, blanket, or toy bottle  -- that foster your child's role-playing. (Yes, even for boys.)

     

  • Offer sturdy board books your child can examine on her own (see "Fun with Babies," below). When you read together, help her categorize by pointing out the babies and different types of people and say the words for each out loud. Note and name facial and body parts as well as items of clothing and other objects. Look at family photo albums and say, "Look! There you are!" when you spot her picture.

     

  • Begin to expose your child to others her age, if you haven't already, but don't have high expectations that she will make fast friends or become an ace at sharing by her second birthday. Those developments come later, with maturity and practice. And if your tot moons over the label on the baby-food jar, let her. You'll be helping to foster a love for others, as well as for spinach.

    Paula Spencer is the author of Everything Else You Need to Know When You're Expecting: The New Etiquette for the New Mom (St. Martin's Griffin).

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